Where do aging computers live out their years? In the case of the New York City school system, in dusty basements and cluttered storage closets. So when the Department of Education recently decided to clean house, officials had the formidable task of disposing of mounds of old computers, specifically 1.3 million pounds of computer hard drives, monitors and other devices.

“Space in New York City is tough to begin with,” explained Jason Henry, the department’s chief administrator for school-based procurement, echoing the lament of many financial companies, firms and medical facilities in the same predicament. For Henry, the computer clean-up program began when officials were collecting outdated textbooks and teachers and principals began to ask, “Can you take all this old computer stuff?”

Enter Dell’s Asset Recovery Service, which will pick up any computer (Dell or otherwise) and for a fee, erase the data, recycle the machine or sell it for parts, all while ensuring it won’t end up in a landfill.

“We sell the hardware, we sell the installation of the hardware, we sell consulting services during their use,” said Joe Strathmann, head of product recovery services at Dell. “At the end of the lifecycle, we sell the retirement offers.” He said the business is built on a double goal: to be environmentally responsible and provide a suite of services for the Dell customer in a way that ensures data security.

“The number one element of why companies outsource to third parties is data security,” he said. “A close, close second is the environmentally responsible disposition of the assets.” He added: “It’s pretty well established how critical data management is as part of the service.”

Indeed, there is a burgeoning need among companies to dispose of old computers in a safe and efficient way. By Dell’s own accounting, it picks up more than a million items a year. (Between a similar program geared toward consumers and the commercial Asset Recovery Service, Strathmann estimated that Dell has picked up more than 275 million pounds of old computers and machines since it started the take-back program five years ago.)

The way it work is this: Dell will come to your office, pick up your old machines and take them to a processing facility where the data is erased and the computer is recycled or sold for parts. Dell’s standard package costs $28 per piece of equipment, though companies are credited the lion’s share of earnings if the item is resold. Companies with older computer systems, which are unlikely to be reused, can pay $15 per piece to recycle the machinery.

According to Dell, a key component is data security and destruction. To avoid any breaches, Dell offers safe methods for shipping old computers, and companies can choose between different methods of “data sanitization,” which range from physically destroying hard drives to bending the disk or drilling a hole into it. “The key in data is that it’s really a spectrum,” said Strathmann, adding: “True physical destruction is the safest way.”

To ensure its protocols are reliable, a third party audits the company on a regular basis. “There’s a lot of responsibility we bring to the table just being Dell,” Strathmann said.

In the case of the New York City public schools, Dell and its partners cleaned out the old machines over the course of 13 months, from May 2008 to June 2009. As the nation’s largest public school system, the DOE counts roughly 600,000 assets — including hard drives, monitors, external drives and other parts — in roughly 1,150 schools citywide.

In all, the DOE got rid of 1.3 million pounds of computer hardware from 900 schools. Officials opted for the highest level of security when it came to data: For each computer being tossed, the hard drive was removed, impaled with a spike and crushed into a one-millimeter cube.

Henry said he got a certificate for each item to ensure it was disposed of in accordance with EPA and DOD standards. “That also assured me that 100 percent of what I sent them did not go to a landfill,” he said.

The process took a little extra effort, but it was worth it, he said. “It’s good to be green,” Henry said, adding that as an educational institution, it was important to lead by example. (Indeed, 100 percent of the books were recycled or reused.) “It was important to us to set the bar in a way so that others would see and others would learn from us,” he said.

MNN homepage photo: gabyjalbert/iStockPhoto

See also:

Dell and the environment

Dell's recycling program for personal computers